United States and Colombia
by Paul Wolf
Z magazine, March 1999
The drug crisis facing the United States
is a top national security threat. The Department of Defense has
been called on to support counter-drug efforts of Federal law
enforcement agencies that are carried out in source countries."
So begins the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, passed
by the U.S. Congress October 19, 1998, as part of the FY 1999
Omnibus Appropriations Bill. The goal of the bill is to create
a "drug-free hemisphere" by attacking drugs at their
source. The bill is being touted by one of its co-authors, Dennis
Hastert (R-IL), as the largest anti-drug bill ever written. The
emphasis is on crop eradication in drug producing countries-namely
On October 28, Presidents Clinton and
Pastrana stood on the White House lawn and announced the formation
of a military Alliance Against Drugs. A deal had been made which
would more than double the amount just appropriated by Congress.
In 1999, U.S. military aid to Colombia will be $289 million, up
from $89 million in 1998. Colombia will become the third largest
recipient of U.S. military aid, following Egypt and Israel. The
Colombian operation is code-named "Invincible." In addition
to Black Hawk helicopters and high caliber Gatling guns for Colombia's
older fleet of Hueys, the Colombian armed forces will receive
training and access to satellite images of areas controlled by
the largest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
de Colombia (FARC). The U.S. will also rebuild the Miraflores
anti-drug base, which was overrun last summer, and beef up "base
and force security" for other military installations in southern
Colombia, such as the Tres Esquinas base in the Caqueta province.
The story begins in 1946. Colombia's liberal
party ran two presidential candidates that year, and as a result
lost the election to the conservative minority party. Violence
became the political tool for consolidation of power, and Colombia
and Bogota were never the same again. U. S. General George Marshall,
attending the Pan American Conference, had to ride back to the
airport inside a Sherman tank. Fifty years 0 sworn revenge ensued,
and the current guerrillas are still staking that claim, feeling
betrayed by the liberal party.
The conflict has taken more then 35,000
lives just in the pas decade, causing more than a mil lion people
to flee their homes The Colombian military has bee unable to attack
the guerrillas directly, and has directed paramilitary death squads
to kill guerrillas and their supporters, often in gruesome, public
ways designed frighten the population.
Paramilitary massacres accounted for 70
percent of the political murders in 1997, according to the U.S.
State Department's annual human rights report. Ther have been
literally hundreds of civilian massacres (each defined a the killing
of four or more people at once) in a policy called "draining
the sea to kill the fish." Targets have included trade unionists,
human rights observers, Catholic priests denouncing the murders,
and anyone supporting the guerrillas.
Some of these paramilitary "self
defense" forces are private armies created by oil, gold,
fruit, and soft drink companies to protect their investments.
The Colombian government organized others, called convivirs.
The United States has played a central
role in the counterinsurgency strategy. Of 247 Colombian military
personnel linked to human rights violations by the Latin America
Working Group, 124 are graduates of the School of the Americas
in Fort Benning, Georgia. According to U. S. Senator Patrick Leahy
(D-VT), the Barrancabermeja navy intelligence network was set
up with the assistance of the CIA in 1991. Colombian General Ivan
Ramirez Quintero served as a CIA asset for years while directing
the paramilitary groups. It is clear that the navy intelligence
network is used to identify guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers,
and the paramilitary death squads are used to kill them.
Senator Leahy successfully introduced
an amendment requiring that military units must be "vetted,"
meaning investigated, to ensure that they have not committed "gross
violations of human rights." Otherwise those units are not
eligible to receive U.S. military aid. This was a great accomplishment
on his part, but there are still no end use monitoring provisions,
or provisions for the protection of human rights observers.
In 1991 alone, U.S. aid to Colombia included
10,000 M14 rifles, 700 M 16 rifles, 623 M79 grenade launchers,
325 M60 machine guns, 46,000 rifle grenades, 37,000 hand grenades,
3,000 Claymore mines, and about 15,000,000 rounds of ammunition.
This level of aid has been exceeded each year until 1999, when
The U. S. has also pressured Colombia
to switch from spraying glyphosate (marketed as Round-Up by Monsanto)
to using the more powerful defoliant tebuthiuron (marketed as
Spike by Dow Agrosciences). Colombia has not agreed to this, for
fear of vast ecological damage to the rainforest. Particularly
disturbing is a recent change in the Department of Defense policy
called the Global Military Force Policy, which establishes the
priorities for the U.S. military in this order: (1) war; (2) military
operations other than war; (3) exercises and training; and (4)
operations not involving hostilities. Congress has upgraded the
military priority of drug eradication and interdiction from that
of non-hostile operations (priority 4), to that of "operations
other than war."
This appears to authorize direct intervention
by the U. S. armed forces.
Recently, the media has been reporting
that Colombia produces 80 percent of the cocaine and 60 percent
of the heroin sold in the United States. However, just two years
ago, Bob Barr (R-GA), the other co-author of the WHDE Act, stated
that 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U. S. came from
coca leaf produced in Peru. Instead of military aid, Peru is receiving
one million dollars a year in alternative development aid. Has
the coca growing business really moved completely out of Peru
and into Colombia? It's hard to tell.
Ronald Reagan first coined the term "narco-guerrilla"
to justify U. S. support of the Contras in Nicaragua. Later, in
what became the Iran-Contra Affair, we learned that the United
States was supplying weapons to the Contras in exchange for cocaine.
The same label is now used in Colombia.
Marine General Charles Wilhelm, commanding officer of the U.S.
Southern Command, says the guerillas are a self-sustaining "narco-insurgency.
" U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) and the Colombian
National Police both refer to the guerillas as "narco-terrorists."
There is little question that the guerillas are funding their
campaign through taxing the drug trade, in addition to kidnapping
people for ransom and extorting money from oil companies. However,
there seems to be little concern that Carlos Castano, leader of
the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, an alliance of paramilitary
groups, is labeled by the DEA as one of the kingpins of the infamous
Cali cocaine cartel. The coca growing business has been described
as a gold rush going on all over Colombia, yet we can be certain
that the majority of the anti-drug missions will be carried out
in the third of the country now controlled by the FARC.
President Andres Pastrana Arango was elected
last summer by a narrow margin, on a platform of making peace
with the rebels. But the road to peace will apparently be a long
one. According to Luis Alberto Moreno, the Ambassador of Colombia
to the U. S., "An integral part of President Pastrana's efforts
to negotiate an end to our internal conflict is to modernize the
Colombian armed forces. The peace process has only just begun."
For his part, Pastrana has denounced the
paramilitary tactics. "Even if the enemies of the state and
society torture, massacre, and use arms and methods prohibited
by civilization, the people society and the state has charged
with defending them cannot respond with the same methods,"
said Pastrana. Yet no one expects him to punish any of his military
officers, or take action against the paramilitary groups.
An amendment to the WHDE Act withholds
U.S. military aid if "the Government of Colombia permits
the establishment of any demilitarized zone in which eradication
by Colombian security forces is prohibited." Clearly, this
is a signal that Washington is not happy with Pastrana's negotiations
with the FARC and his withdrawal of troops from the Caqueta region.
Peace talks with the FARC began on January
7. Pastrana is in a difficult position, but he has the first chance
in decades to end the war. It will be a great test for him, and
could set Colombia's course for years to come. z
Paul Wolf is a member of the Colombia
South America watch